Empathy has always been the emotional G-spot of advertising. If you can make a consumer believe that you truly share their pain and their dreams, you're more likely to convince them that you'll be able to plug that lipstick/car/consultancy-shaped hole in their soul. And one of the chief appeals of social media for marketers is its ability to bridge the divide between 'us' and 'them'. "If you're trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something," David Ogilvy said, "it seems to me you should use their language." Social media allows brands to create instant verbal and visual rapport.
As a result, boundaries between cultural castes are being dramatically traduced in this drive to relate. Think teen bloggers such as Bip Ling being given journalistic privileges in the super-elite fashion front row. Consider the spread of the #26acts hashtag, through which people across the world who have never set foot on American soil pledge to do 26 good deeds in memory of the victims of the Newtown school massacre. Or observe Richard Branson ensuring he stays 'close to the little people' – and keeps his Virgin empire feeling human – by tweeting personal tips, opinions and experiences.
The irony of this is that empathy is, apparently, in decline. Studies from prestigious American academics have indicated that our constant multitasking and inability to switch off our self-involved 'tech brain' is taking its toll on our ability to listen, be present with others and really step into their shoes. And if you look more closely at most brands' social efforts, this won't come as a surprise. Overly salesy presences offering little more than customer service fob-offs, product pictures and esoteric articles compiled by a desperate content team prevail. That's lazy faux-empathy.
Dealing with brand negativity online is a salutary example. It comes top on most companies' social agendas, but fostering and displaying empathy is rarely even mentioned. Detractors are moaners or nutters; we need to suppress, not indulge. Thus we get elaborate flowcharts and processes, rather than an approach that treats each person as an individual, I listens without judgment, I asks for specifics and takes tangible action.
This is short-sighted because, perhaps thanks to our empathy deficit, experiences of affinity are more likely than ever to get us talking, especially when they happen face to face. Apple staff are trained to use body language so that they can 'empathise with the customer as much as possible, but without apologising for the business itself'. The Smith Family, an Australian children's charity, recently used Panasonic and Microsoft technology to create an award-winning interactive outdoor ad based on empathy. Faced with a responsive screen showing a child in a school corridor, who attempts to engage but then runs away, passers-by could experience their alienation for real. The campaign led to a marked uplift in donations and positive social media debate.
Moreover, simply feeling heard has enormous power in an increasingly noisy world. As part of a recent Smart Shoppers campaign, we invited a group of selected mummy bloggers and their kids to a day at Hackney City Farm, so, while the kids painted faces and petted animals, the mums could share their money-saving tips, feedback on how the site and its social presences were developing, and explain what they really wanted from such a scheme. This sort of in-person event – part-consultation, part-bonding, 100% focused on listening, empathising and adapting – is intrinsic to many of our strategies, and is becoming a default for start-ups or product developers who don't want to launch into a void.
Thinkers from diverse fields are starting to champion the importance of empathy as a timely social trigger. Two cheerleaders include Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, whose thoughts on 'kind Darwinism' are well worth a read; and political adviser and author Jeremy Rifkin, whose animated talk on 'the emphatic civilisation' can be found on the RSA's YouTube channel. Considering how rapidly the web is impacting on our brains and behaviours, understanding developments in neuroscience and sociology is becoming a business imperative.
Don't be deceived. Social media has created an extraordinary opportunity for brands to empathise with consumers, but it hasn't made it any easier. Reaching beyond your self-interested world view, whether a fashion brand, a charity or a CEO, is as uncomfortable as ever; but if you can achieve that leap, you'll leave us begging for more.